Monday, April 26, 2021

Ivan Havel, 1938-2021

Ivan M. Havel died yesterday, on Sunday. He was found dead in the bathtub.

He was born on October 11th, 1938, two years after his older and more famous brother Václav Havel, in Czecho-Slovakia. This hyphenation is correct because on October 1st, 1938, following the Munich Treaty, our country got rearranged to the rather disgusting Second Republic of Czecho-Slovakia where various rats and Nazis (not only the Slovak fascists responsible for the capitalization of S) became powerful – much like their counterparts are getting powerful today (especially in the U.S. and Western Europe). The Second Republic lasted for 5+ months up to mid March 1939 when the peaceful Nazi occupation started the full-blown Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

I knew him in person, unlike his brother Václav. In particular, roughly a decade ago, I was giving about three lectures (on 3 different years) after him at a Summer School of Young Philosophers near Olomouc (in the Church of Gradual Decontamination of Virgin Mary in Oak upon Morava, not sure whether my decontamination terminology is used by the U.S. Catholics LOL). In one of those cases, he was kind enough to lend me his laptop.

They were brothers and there exist tons of pictures from their childhood. Note that Ivan is always the smaller kid. Both of them had the same parents – from rich families. Their father has built the film ateliers at Barrandov, the largest Hollywood-like company in Czechoslovakia. This dad's brother Miloš Havel was an important entrepreneur in the movie industry. Ivan's and Václav's paternal granddad, Vácslav Havel, built the prestigious Lucerna (=Lantern) concert hall at the Wenceslaus (different one) Square.

Their maternal grandfather was a VIP, too. According to Ivan Havel, Hugo Vavrečka was the "last renaissance man" or "polymath" but equally importantly, he was an important manager in the Baťa Shoe Company (a prototype of a successful interwar Czechoslovak corporation), a macroeconomist, and diplomat.

OK, you could expect Václav and Ivan to be very similar and to have a very similar fate. But that wasn't really the case. When it came to their activity, Ivan Havel has evolved into a more "engineering" kind of a guy than Václav Havel who was apparently a guy from "humanities". But some of these differences could be due to their personal spin.

When they were very young, their mother already complained about Václav's bohemian lifestyle – she was upset that he was spending his evenings in Prague Cafés. Václav always wanted to study some humanities but as a spoiled brat from a capitalist family, which is what they saw, he wasn't allowed by the communists. He managed to get an economics degree from the Czech Technical University. On the other hand, Ivan had no trouble with the natural scientific and engineering fields. In the 1960s, he got an undergrad degree in automatization and computers at the Czech Technical University (Department of Electric Technologies).

The 1960s and even some years after the 1968 Soviet-led occupation were a very relaxed decade. So Ivan Havel was also able to get a doctorate at a rather well-known university in the West. Well, yes, it was a PhD from University at Berkeley in 1971. For the rest of his life, Ivan Havel was thinking about deep philosophical, ethical, and related questions that had something to do with cybernetics. Frankly, it has always seemed to me that his attitude to these questions wasn't terribly up-to-date, he always sounded like a repetition or variation of some Norbert Wiener texts about cybernetics.

During the Normalization (the lukewarm neo-Stalinist period between the 1968 occupation and the 1989 Velvet Revolution), Ivan Havel was also a dissident intellectual of a sort but he was clearly considered much less dangerous than his brother Václav. He was fundamentally interested in things like robots and the communist regime just didn't find it terribly threatening. Nevertheless, Ivan Havel also organized some intellectual seminars for dissidents. He has never signed his brother's Charter 77 Manifesto because "one black sheep per family is enough" and "it's painful to join in the 2nd or 3rd wave". In late 1989, both Václav and Ivan belonged among the co-founders of the Civic Forum, the eclectic multi-ideological movement whose only reasonable purpose was to defeat the communist party in the parliamentary election once.

After the communism fell, he could become what he probably always wanted to be, an interdisciplinary thinker, a philosopher writing about the ethical issues of the rise of the robots, deeply formal theory of programming languages etc. He founded a special interdisciplinary Center of Theoretical Studies at the Charles University. My understanding is that he always wanted people to know more mathematics and physics and the center was actually a tool to increase the power of my Alma Mater Department – "Faculty of Mathematics and Physics" – within the remaining 17 or so "faculties" (that's how we call the rather numerous departments) of the Charles University.

He's held various important enough scientific-political chairs. In particular, for years, he was the editor-in-chief of The Cosmos (Vesmír), a rather important publication for certain Czech professional scientists (especially interdisciplinary ones like himself). I think that he was the boss when they published an article of mine about the holographic principle (and string theory in general) over 2 decades ago. I do think that under his leadership, it was a highly professionally run journal with its language editors, cartoonist, nontrivial refinement of the material that is submitted. The circulation was never too high, he had no trouble with being esoteric or invisible.

He was married twice, has two kids from the first marriage. He never wanted to be celebrated – and he has often shared some of the critical attitudes towards his brother with his critics.

RIP, Ivan Havel.

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